The Chisos Mountains come as a surprise. Who would expect a range of peaks higher than 7,000 feet to suddenly thrust up out of the Texas desert, forming one of the highest ranges east of the Rockies as they tower above the Rio Grande. But when you spend some time here in Big Bend National Park, you discover lots of surprises, including world class hiking among the peaks.
Named for the actual Big Bend, that sudden, magnificent, unlikely course change the Rio Grande makes in a graceful loop to the northeast before finally resuming its usual course to the southeast, Big Bend National Park encompasses the Chisos mountain range in its entirety, a rare thing. But Big Bend is big park, more than 800,000 acres, and its stretch of the Rio Grande covers almost a quarter of Texas’ thousand mile border between the United States and Mexico. This Texas-sized domain, preserved rather late, in 1944, protects not just the High Chisos and their extensive trail network and unique high-country landscape, but 1,200 square miles of Chihuahuan Desert ecostystem. Big Bend is in fact three parks in one, encompassing river, desert and mountains.
I made the journey way down here—it’s not an easy place to reach—to hike in the High Chisos mountains. A network of trails meanders among the peaks. Mount Emory is the highest peak in the park, at 7,825 feet (2,385 meters), but others reach over 7,000 feet, including neighboring Toll Mountain at 7,415. You’ll walk right by both these peaks on the way to the Chisos Rim, a stunning vantage point more than 2,500 feet (465 meters) above the desert floor. Stretching for four miles like a giant balcony, the Rim from some points offers a glimpse down to the Rio Grande, protected here as a Wild and Scenic River, and beyond to the mountains of Mexico.
Big Bend is not just on the border with Mexico, it is the border. And while rich in culture, wildlife and scenery, rugged Big Bend nonetheless remains one of the least visited of all the U.S. national parks, with only 300,000 visitors a year. The Grand Canyon would see twice that many people in a single month. But long distances from population centers, and the scarcity of water, have protected this landscape well enough to preserve the wilderness experience here.
The hiking here makes the long trip to Big Bend worthwhile. In fact, just getting to the park is part of the fun. Texans, who seem immune to the mind numbing realities of 12 hour drives, usually arrive by car. The rest of us have to fly. The closest major airport to Big Bend is Odessa/Midland, about three hours by car from the park, closer to four hours to the trailhead. South Texas is a land of plumb-line straight roads and legal 85 mile per hour speed limits, so driving to the park from the airport is an experience in itself. Long drives on empty two lane highways used to be an experience that was common, but not in these days of crowded interstate highways. The long drive to Big Bend will remind you of those simpler times.
When finally, after four hours at high speed the legendary Persimmons Gap appears on the horizon, you know you are getting close. Most park services, including the motel style “lodge,” cafeteria and ranger station are located in Chisos Basin. That’s also the trailhead for the route recommended here, an 18-mile loop that takes you out to the South Rim for a view of the Rio Grande and then back to the basin via a different route. Because the basin is an hour from the park entrances, the best strategy is to find accommodations right here, in the heart of the park.
The hike itself is quite simple: you take one of two trails out to the start of the South Rim loop, do the Rim hike, spend a night or two, and return by either of those same trails. A middle route can come in handy to make a shorter trip, bail out, or deal with trail closures. I recommend this route: From the big Chisos Basin Trailhead parking lot near the visitors center parking lot, hike the Pinnacles and Boot Canyon trails, which take you to the eastern part of the Rim. From there, traverse the rim trail toward the west and hike back to the basin via the Laguna Meadow trail.The alternative is to hike out on the Laguna Meadow Trail, and back to Chisos Basin on the Pinnacls and Boot Canyon trails.
It’s best to spend a night or two out on the rim, but be forewarned there is no reliable water, so you have to carry what you need, about a gallon per day. And you have to get a backcountry camping permit and reservation for a rim camp. But the hiking is straightforward and the trails well maintained. A significant population of mountain lion (often called panthers in Texas) and black bear are known to live in the park. Attacks on humans are rare, but at least two have occurred in the past decade. Store your food in animal-proof containers provided in each camp, and report any sightings of predators to a park ranger.
This moderate two or three night backpack will show you a unique collection of eco-systems as you travel from 5,000 feet to almost 8,000 feet in the High Chisos Mountains. And when the hiking is done, drive down to the Rio Grande for a dip in the river. People used to simply wade across the river for a beer, but such casual trans-border socializing came to an end after 9/11.
Still, the trip to the river shouldn't be missed. But the real action here is the hiking. The backcountry journey out to the ragged edge of the country’s southern-most mountain range can bring unexpected surprises. It could inadvertently make you the envy of every birder in the Lower 48: that Colima warbler you see on the Laguna Meadow trail may be just one of 450 bird species in the park, but you’re not going to see it anywhere else in the United States. Big Bend is full of susrprises.
The closest airport to Big Bend is the Midland/Odessa airport, and that's still four or five hours away. So be prepared to add a couple of days to get there.